Hoax story sparks soul-searching among nation's media
Washington — Newspapers routinely expose scandals in their communities. Now the spotlight is turned on them as journalists assess the effects of a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature that turned out to be a hoax.
Editors interviewed by the Monitor say they are reviewing all their practices -- from checking on the purported degrees and experience of new reporters to the professional rules developed through long tradition.
Writer Janet Cooke had told her story of "Jimmy," an eight-year-old heroin addict, on Page One of the Washington Post and won journalism's highest award before admitting that Jimmy did not exist.
"This points a finger at all of us," says John Hunter, associate editor of the Madison (Wis.) Capitol Times.
"It raises the question of 'Can you believe what you read in a newspaper?'" says James Gannon, editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune. "Now you have this famous case where the answer is, 'No, you shouldn't have believed that.'"
Indeed, this may be the most lasting effect of the Pulitzer debacle, says John H. Ullmann, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a 15 ,000-member association with headquarters at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "That will stick in peoples' minds for a long, long time. They will wonder, 'What liberties did the reporter take?' This is damaging because most reporters take no liberties."
As a major feature story that was entirely faked, "Jimmy" is an "isolated incident," Mr. Ullmann says. But he points out that a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review included admissions by some reporters that they had made up quotes.
Most editors and press experts focus on the Post editors' failure to compel Ms. Cooke to disclose her sources -- especially after the veracity of her account was questioned by others on the staff and by public officials. Initially, editors asked her about her sources. But they backed off after she said she had been threatened with death if she revealed her sources.
"The editor stands between the reporter and the reader," says Howard Bray, executive director for the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington. His organization gives about $100,000 a year in grants to reporters. "A reporter, in my judgement, has not breached confidence with a source by identifying the source to the editor."
David Weir, cofounder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Oakland, Calif., stopped short of that rule."The editor has a responsibility to have access to some of the information" about sources, he says. Some reporters fear that an editor might betray the secret, he adds, but an editor can ask to see notes with names deleted or to hear tapes.
Many editors already insist on strict verification for investigative stories that, unlike the "Jimmy" feature, could trigger libel suits. Mr. Weir says the Cooke episode will not change that. What may change, he says, is that "papers might review their personnel records." (The "Jimmy" fabrication was uncovered after it was discovered that Ms. Cooke had falsified her educational credentials.)
The Post itself turned its ombudsman, Bill Green, loose to uncover what went wrong. Mr. Green's report found the Post's handling of the story "inexcusable."
"The Scramble for journalistic prizes is poisonous," Green concluded. "The obligation is to inform readers. Maybe the Post should consider not entering contests."
In letters published in the Post April 18, several readers poured out their skepticism for that newspaper and the press in general. "Perhaps it's time the press, and certainly The Post, shed the self-righteous attitude and cleaned up its act," said one letter. Another quoted the admonition to "believe none of what you read and only half of what you see."
Criticism has been equally biting from other papers.
"When a reputable newspaper lies, it poisons the community," editorialized the New York Times. And the Baltimore Sun warned that if reporters and editors overreach "there will be assaults on the First Amendment that, in the end, could erode the public's right to know."
Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution researcher who has just published a study on the Washington press, points to a broader trend of looser editorial control. "My own research on how Washington reporters operate shows that editorial control has slipped from the proprietors to the editors and no is slipping from the editors to the reporters."
"The unattributed source is running rampant in this city," says Mr. Hess. "We see it all over the country, but it's reached a fever pitch in Washington." In his study, he found 28 percent of reporters' interviews were off the record or on a background basis.
"Of course, they should be off the record in national security and diplomacy stories," Hess says. But the lack of attribution ran at 11 percent in noncritical areas such as housing and agriculture.
Why the tolerance for unattributed sources?
"First, to hype the story," Hess says. "If the source can't be identified, this must be a very important story."
Laziness, says Mr. Hunter of the Madison Capital Times. "The professional way is to tell the source what he has to say is important. If he won't tell you on the record, don't use it, and go to someone else who will."
In the future, journalists will almost certainly think twice before including unnamed sources in their stories, says Ullmann, who also sees an "overuse" of confidential sources.
"[The Cooke story] is a rare type of story, but unfortunately for people who are inclined to suspect newspapers are unfair, this is only going to reinforce that doubt," says Jack Landau, director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press. Mr. Landau also predicts that the faked story, since it was based on so-called "confidential sources," will make it harder for other reporters to defend their right to conceal the names of their sources.
Reporters often rely on well-placed informants who leak documents and facts but insist on anonymity. Such a source is said to have enabled two other Washington Post writers, Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward, to unravel the Watergate scandal. They have never revealed their informant.
Some reporters have gone to jail for refusing to name their confidential sources, even when ordered by judges by divulge them. Landau says about a dozen reporters across the nation are facing court orders to reveal their informants' identities. The "Jimmy" hoax, he says, will have "some impact on judges and people who decide these subpoenas."
"It isn't going to help us any to have the Janet Cooke thing happen," says James E. Shelledy of Moscow, Idaho. He wrote a series of stories for the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune exposing corruption and abuse in the Idaho Narcotics Bureau. When a judge in a libel suit demanded to know Mr. Shelledy's secret source, the reporter almost had to spend 30 days in jail. The judge later backed down, and Shelledy won his libel case without disclosing the name. His series resulted in three criminal indictments and five firings.
Newspapers will likely work harder to back up stories.
"I think it's [the Post case] going to have an effect on not so much the use of [confidential] sources, but the use of sources as the predominant feature of a story," says Landau. "It might produce more careful journalism."
"One positive result [of the Post incident] will be to press reporters harder to disclose their sources," says Hunter of the Madison Capitol Times. "We're going to see if something in our own rules would cause something like that no happen to us."
"We need to find ways to get more material on the record," says Register and Tribune editor Gannon, "or find other ways to verify it. If a story came across my desk today that built its case on an unnamed situation, I would view it with more skepticism. We'd be asking our readers to accept something that has come into question."
Currently, those readers hold a mixed view of the press. According to a Public Agenda Foundation study on press and the public:
* While 89 percent credit the news media for ferreting out Watergate-type corruption in government, 62 percent think newspapers will sensationalize the news or "do just about anything to make a story interesting."
* While 64 percent think the people who work for newspapers and TV news "really care about serving the public," 50 percent think newspapers are often "downright irresponsible." Barely half the public thinks newspaper stories "are usually accurate" and "almost always get their facts straight."
Both the Harris Survey and the National Opinion Research Council report that about one in five Americans are "highly confident" in the people running the press -- about half the level of confidence in those in education and medicine. Even the military and the US Supreme Court do better than the press.
Ullman adds that members of his association offer these rules of thumb for using sources:
1. Try to keep all sources on the record. 2. Don't rely solely on confidential sources. Find independent sources and documents to back up their claims.
3. If you must cite these sources within a story, do it sparingly.